UCLA Faces First Tough Pac-10 Series With Arizona In Town

UCLA will need a good defense and bullpen behind their starting pitchers to take down Arizona (Photo Credit: Scott Wu)

It's Jackie Robinson Day all across the country as MLB players will be wearing the number 42 and it's Jackie Robinson Day at Jackie Robinson Stadium tonight too. The number 42 is painted on the field and all in all, it's a great day to be a Bruin. UCLA and Arizona will begin before long so feel free to use this as an open thread for all those following along. - R

Through three series UCLA has done their job. They've won seven of their nine games, including two away series wins that will add a little sparkle to their resume, but here's the kicker. UCLA's three series have come against what look to be the bottom three teams in the Pac-10 in USC, Washington and Washington St. That means the Bruins will now have to maintain their spot atop the conference while playing the best that the Pac-10 has to offer. This week is the first of those "bests" as Arizona comes to Westwood to play the UCLA in a crucial three-game series that can either propel the Bruins into the upper echelon of conference teams or leave them trying to prove themselves yet again.

UCLA comes into the weekend having won six of their last eight games and with a sparkling 10-3 home record for the season. Last weekend's series win at Washington St. was marred by losing a ninth inning lead on Sunday that kept the Bruins from getting the sweep, but even so the Bruins are atop the Pac-10 with a 7-2 record. Arizona got off to a rough start to conference play when they lost series to Arizona St. and Oregon St., but they bounced back with a series win over a good Cal team a week ago and are back in the top 20 nationally. What will be a challenge for the Wildcats though is playing away from home, where they are just 4-6 on the year.

The weekend will be a test of strength versus strength. Nobody needs reminding of how good the UCLA pitching has been. A 2.12 team ERA, .189 batting average against and over 10 strike outs per nine innings tells you all you need to know about the Bruins' pitching, but they'll be facing a different animal in the Arizona offense this weekend. The Wildcats are hitting .342 as a team, slugging .473 and have even added 46 stolen bases. With those numbers it is no surprise that the Wildcats are averaging over seven runs per game, setting this weekend up as a tantalizing match-up of incredible pitching versus fearsome hitting.

The first Bruin pitcher tasked with stopping the Wildcat offense will be Gerrit Cole, who will take to the mound in the series opener on Friday night (6 pm PDT). The junior has been sensational since day one of the season and his 4-2 record, 1.74 ERA and 64 strike outs to just 11 walks proves it. Cole showed just how good he's become again last weekend, flashing his overpowering stuff only when he needed it. Instead of trying to pick up every strike out, Cole has worked on being more efficient this season and he was again last week in picking up his second consecutive complete game with a five hit, one unearned run performance.

Opposite Cole will be the man who is following the same path as Cole. Kurt Heyer entered Arizona as a highly touted freshman and before long was throwing on Friday nights, just like Cole was as a UCLA freshman. Now as a sophomore, Heyer has grabbed a hold of the Friday night spot with a fantastic first half of the season that has seen him go 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA. He's done it with 80 strike outs and just 15 walks, a carry over from last season when he showed uncanny command and poise for a freshman.  A year ago Heyer proved he could shut down the UCLA offense, surrendering just one run in six innings before the Bruins got to the Wildcat bullpen.

When the series moves to Saturday (2 pm PDT), UCLA will move on to Trevor Bauer and that's been just fine for them for three years now. Bauer is in the midst of an incredible season, having already collected three National Pitcher of the Week awards. His most recent award came last week when he struck out 15 in a complete game performance at Washington St. The junior has now struck out at least 10 in seven of his eight starts this season and is averaging 13.5 strike outs per nine innings. He has a 6-1 record and 1.67 ERA on the year and .150 batting average against. If that's not enough to scare the Wildcats, he allowed just one run in a complete game win against them in Tucson last year.

Like UCLA, Arizona will turn to a right-handed junior on Saturday when they send Kyle Simon to the bump. Simon was the losing pitcher in Bauer's complete game win against the Wildcats last year and he got knocked around in that outing, allowing six runs, five earned, in five innings. He's been good this season with a 6-2 record and 3.34 ERA thanks to improved command. Simon has walks just six batters in 64.2 innings this season so the Bruins know he'll be around the plate, but he's coming off a seven run, seven inning start so he's not coming to this weekend rolling.

He may be a freshman, but he has looked anything but one and that is why UCLA has complete confident in turning to Adam Plutko on Sunday (1 pm PDT). Plutko's problem has been a lack of run support thought. Since winning his first two starts of the season, Plutko is 0-3 despite a 2.58 ERA in that span. A lack of run support and shoddy bullpen work and defense have done him in so he is just 2-3 on the year. While his record may not indicate it, Pluko has been very good this season with a 1.74 ERA and he's been especially good at home so he should be able to give the Bruins a chance to grab the Sunday contest, but he's also never faced an offense like Arizona's.

How does a team averaging over seven runs per game lose 11 games already this season? Pitching, of course. Heyer has been as good as anyone on Fridays, but Simon has been up and down on Saturdays and when the Wildcats get to Sunday or the bullpen it is a mystery. Arizona head coach (and former UCLA shortstop) Andy Lopez hasn't announced a starter for Sunday primarily because there isn't a good option to go to.

Tickets to a game are $7 for adults, $5 for children and free for Wooden Club cardholders. For those of you looking to follow along this weekend, GameTracker will have it and you can get all the in-game updates, along with links and other information, especially weather and schedule updates, on my UCLA baseball twitter. John Ramey and Tim Wilhelm are back in the booth this weekend and giving you the play by play online all weekend. This weekend will be big for the Bruins in the Pac-10 title race, for resume purposes and in terms of perception so head on out to the ballpark and cheer on the Bruins.

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